The Three Wrong Responses Christians Make To Persecution And The One Right Response

Logo 071414How should churches respond when governments oppose and outlaw them and their message?

Many Pentecostal Christians in Eastern Europe responded to religiously repressive Marxist governments in three erroneous ways, while others found and embraced one productive and biblical path.

That is the contention of Gordon-Conwell Seminary Distinguished Professor of World Missions and European Studies Peter Kuzmic in his article entitled “Pentecostal Theology and Communist Europe” in Kay & Dyer’s 2001 European Pentecostalism (Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies). It’s worth a careful read since clearly the challenges–and the responses–were not limited to Soviet Europe but are instead quite relevant today.

Kuzmic notes that the first unproductive response of Eastern European churches to communist oppression was resignation:

The first defensive reaction of many minority Christian communities who have suddenly found themselves surrounded by a powerful enemy and ruled over by an atheistic system is to withdraw from the society, literally to ‘flee the world’ (340).

Kuzmic explains that this fleeing took two forms among Eastern European Christians: internal emigration (withdrawing from society) and external emigration (fleeing the country). Provocatively, he contends that each was equally problematic and that both arose out of the same sinful root: fear. “Both are caused by fear of engaging the new system which is conceived as evil” (340). Kuzmic shares that while external emigration might appear the more problematic course of action (in that some areas were left without a Christian witness), through internal emigration (staying put but withdrawing from society), the church was “by and large also lost for social impact and effective evangelism.” Adds Kuzmic, by opting for internal emigration the church

very often developed a sectarian ghetto mentality with a passive if not reactionary legalism and insulation that made them incapable of a Gospel-prescribed ‘salt and light’ influence on their society. They often developed their own pietistic subcultures with their own patterns of behavior, language, dress code, and even hymnology and modes of prayer.” (342)

Kuzmic continues with a second problematic response to government opposition: resistance. That is,

to react by fighting, taking a posture of active opposition to the government and its policies… The simple reasoning behind this crusader mentality was that the new system is ungodly and evil, inspired by the devil and should neither be obeyed nor tolerated, but rather actively opposed in the name of Christ (p. 343).

This, contends Kuzmic, was the response most likely to result in repression, “countless Christian martyrs” and “devastation of church property and institutions.” By assuming the role of the resistance, Christians became “ideological enemies in the service of the ‘imperialist nations’ and thus unpatriotic political traitors” (344). He adds, “[W]herever Christians were trapped into the assumption that their major task was to fight communism they handicapped themselves by becoming incapable of practicing forgiveness and being living (or dying) witnesses to their communist enemies” (344). Concludes Kuzmic, “It is always a betrayal of the Gospel when Christian faith is reduced, in reality or by perception, to a politico-ideological force” (344).

The third error Eastern European Christians committed in response to communist oppression, according to Kuzmic, was accommodation,

the temptation to conform or compromise, to tailor the message to the new situation and to accommodate to the prevailing ideology (344).

Think three-self church in China. And just as with the three-self church and the unregistered church in China, accommodation “often caused splits between those denominations that registered with the government and agreed to observe the letter of the law and those who rejected any compromises with the authorities and refused the observance of legal restrictions thus choosing to operate in a [sic] clandestine ways as ‘underground churches'” (344). For Christians willing to abide by the government’s restrictions, governments typically responded with “the three-designates policy: designated place, personnel, and areas” (346). This, says Kuzmic, always led to a compromise of the church’s role and message.

So if resignation, resistance, and accommodation represented the wrong theological moves of Eastern European Christians in response to communism, what was the correct response discovered by some churches? Kuzmic says it was the theology of the cross:

The words of Jesus–‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Mark 8:34)–had a deep experiential meaning for them. Their contextual reading of Scriptures convinced them that suffering was an essential mark of true discipleship (349).

Living according to a theology of the cross entailed total commitment to all the demands of Jesus, including the whole spectrum of ethical (personal and social) requirements that are inherent in the biblical kerygma.” (352). In short, it meant living the Christian life in response to the call of Christ, not in reaction to the government. This included accepting the consequences the government meted out, as a way of conveying that Christians are citizens of a different kingdom. This necessarily entailed suffering. The willingness to suffer without retaliation while continuing to love their enemies became the most attractive characteristic of authentic Christians under communism.

Kuzmic’s thoughts should challenge us to assess our own response to Christians experiencing persecution today. Perhaps because we are ambivalent toward suffering and persecution in our own lives, we may uncritically support Christians who respond to persecution according to one of the three theologically erroneous approaches rather than challenging and encouraging them to repent of such approaches and embrace the way of the cross. After all, who are we comfortable, affluent Western Christians to call persecuted believers (or anyone) to repentance? And if we encourage persecuted believers to take up their crosses, we risk needing to repent and to embrace the way of the cross ourselves.

The failure to hold persecuted believers accountable is costlier still, however. If we continue to export to persecuted Christians our own ambivalence toward suffering–that is, if we fund projects that encourage resignation, resistance, or accommodation in the face of persecution–we will further foster expressions of the Christian faith that are biblically insufficient and that compromise the witness of Christ exactly where and when it is needed most.

So as you consider your financial and prayer support to various projects of aid for persecuted believers, ask yourself: Does this project encourage resignation, resistance, accommodation, or the theology of the cross? And as I make this gift, am I embodying the theology of the cross in my own Christian walk? If not, how can I do so?

Your commitment to take up your own cross daily may be the most significant help and encouragement that you can offer to Christians facing persecution who must make that same choice daily as well.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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